February 8th marks the 65th anniversary of the victory at Guadalcanal in WWII. From that day on, the Japanese would be engaged in, “…a long and costly retreat, one that continued virtually unchecked until their August 1945 capitulation (Naval Historical Center).”
But that hardly tells the story of Guadalcanal.
Eight months earlier, the Japanese were the dominant power in the Pacific, notwithstanding the battles of Coral Sea and Midway. By July, a strategic and tactical chess game was being waged in the theater. Japan continued its policy of expansion, establishing air bases as it moved to provide support for the next conquest. To that end a small seaplane base was established at Taluga, and construction had began on an airstrip on the nearby island of Guadalcanal (Center of Military History).
The Allied efforts were concentrated on Europe, but unchecked expansion in the Pacific by the Imperial forces was unacceptable. “With the Japanese threatening to cut the line of communications to Australia, or to attack Australia directly, the American officers responsible for the conduct of the Pacific war had agreed that an offensive should be mounted to end the threat (Center of Military History).”
That offensive became the battle of Guadalcanal.
The seven month battle began easily enough, with the 1st Marine Division landing unopposed at the northern beaches (although there was early fighting at the nearby islands of Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo – islands deemed vital to protect the approaches to the beaches at Guadalcanal itself (History Learning Site)). By the 8th, the Americans had captured the air field (renamed Henderson Field), and prepared for counter-attacks by the Japanese who had retreated inland.
But the first major battle was at sea. Beginning with the first Battle of Savo Island (“one of the worst defeats suffered by the US Navy in the Second World War (History of War)”), there were, “…five significant surface battles and several skirmishes (NHC)” at sea. The naval battle continued throughout the first four months of the campaign, resulting in more casualties at sea than on land (NHC). In the beginning, Japanese superiority – especially at night – forced the withdrawal of naval forces from the vicinity of the island, including carrier and logistic support. The naval battle would continue in the nearby waters that would soon be dubbed “Iron Bottom Sound.”
Loss of naval support left the Marines virtually alone to defend their gains, and with only half of their supplies (many of which were haphazardly stacked up at the beach by inexperienced crews). But with control of Henderson Field, the Americans were able to provide land-based air cover. This became vitally important as the the Japanese began to fight back in ever-increasing numbers.
What followed were months of pitched, bloody fighting as American and Japanese forces attacked, dug in, and counter-attacked. The Marines turned the tide by December; and with the addition of Army reinforcements and the Navy’s eventual success at sea, the end was in sight by the end of the year.
In February of 1943 the Japanese began to withdraw their forces, and by the 8th of February the island was in American hands (NHC).
The US suffered some 6,000 casualties, including 1600 killed (USD), not including losses at sea. The Japanese fared much worse with 24,000 deaths (9000 from disease) (Army Center of Military History).
But more than that, Guadalcanal became the line in the sand beyond which the Japanese would never again be allowed to stray. To those who fought there – especially to the Marines – Guadalcanal came to symbolize bravery and determination against a fierce and determined foe (in all, there were 12 Medals of Honor earned at Guadalcanal: 7 Marines, 3 Army, 1 Navy and one to Signalman 1st Class Munro, the only Coast Guardsman to be awarded the Medal of Honor (MedalofHonor.com)). The Americans had learned a great deal from their first offensive in the Pacific – the intricacies of amphibious operations, the importance of aerial and naval support, and a glimpse of the bloody battles that awaited them.
But they also learned they could win.